As an impressionable youth, I had several dreams. At 15, all I wanted to be was a tearaway fast bowler for India. Today, I am not given the full quota of overs even in 20-over matches that Business Standard plays. At 17, I wanted to be a fighter pilot and the closest I have come to that is on a video screen. At 20, I thought I would some day climb Mount Everest but at 37, I resist the urge to unfurl the tricolour after climbing three flights of stairs. Well, at several points of time, I wanted to be a Formula One driver and started blaming the lack of exposure and a rich dad pretty early in life.
But last month I came close to the last dream. If driving a single-seater Formula Renault on a Formula One-spec track is close, that is. Mind you, I weigh close to 100 kg, am tall enough to dwarf Alonso and many people who meet me for the first time think that I swallowed a football accidentally. So there was the obvious question of fitting into the tub of a single-seater and I will come to that soon.
To begin with, I didn’t know what I was getting into. The last time Michelin invited me to Sepang, it was for some insanely fun laps in an assortment of fast and exotic machinery, and I didn’t think twice when they invited me this time for the Pilot Experience. The Pilot Experience centres around hiring the track and throwing around some exotic machinery shod with Pilot rubber – the high performance tyre series from tyre giant Michelin. If I knew the idea of flying me over to Sepang was to sample a Formula Renault single seater (the same one that tremendously talented chaps like Armaan Ebrahim will be driving this year), then I would have gladly cooked up an excuse and sent Shreenand or Joshua for the same. As I said, they didn’t tell me.
Of course, I started panting the moment I saw the little aerodynamic piece of machinery.
The embarrassment began at the fitting room where I was handed over the biggest racing suit Sparco has ever made and the biggest racing shoes and the biggest gloves and the biggest... so on. While the rest of the journo bunch strutted around with racing overalls tied to their hips like real racing drivers, I had no option but to stay zipped. You see, taking it off my shoulders meant help from two of the overzealous Michelin girls who would tug and pull till I burst out of it like a genie out of a magic lamp.
After profusely sweating through a theory session, the nice people at Michelin asked us to sample the cockpit and get a feel for the controls. I somehow managed to squeeze myself in and barely managed to change gears using a stubby sequential lever that was now lost beneath my right thigh. And when they extracted me from the sample car, one of my shoes remained inside. Actually every single time I got into the single-seater during the day, they had to extract me out of it and each time I managed to limp out with just one shoe. Impressed?
After the sample car came the real thing. I mean it was the real deal – a brightly coloured car in Renault F1 livery complete with my name on it, more overzealous pitgirls with umbrellas, two well-built extractors, a BMW M3 pace car… you name it. The Formula Renault features a four-cylinder engine from the Clio RS that is good for 165 bhp at 6100 rpm and is capable of speeds above 200 kph. The whole thing weighs just under 500 kg which makes it quicker around Sepang than a Porsche Carrera Cup racer! The Formula Renault car is pretty well built and it can take a lot of abuse. And abusing it was all I was going to do, at least for my first lap. Before I knew it, the four-pot cracked to life and I managed to ease the clutch and roll on without stalling it. Alright, a bit of a push from the crew also helped. Now it was time to concentrate and follow the line of the pace car that would vary pace depending on the comfort level of the novice, that is me, in the racing car.
The sensation of speed and noise as you head out of the pit is incredible and I was thrilled to bits because I could actually shift gears. I mean, I had decided to get the box stuck in third gear, stay in it for the entire lap and drive it like a go-kart. But there I was, snicking through the gears and gazing at the open slicks that were gunning for the famous C1 at Sepang. There were markers for brakes and turn-ins at critical corners and that helped matters. It took me three corners to realise that a single-seater on slicks is not a sedan or an SUV and it would gladly corner at any speed, I repeat, any speed that I could carry into turns. Once that realisation settled, my Renault caught up with the BMW driver who in all probability would have been preparing for an early siesta behind the wheel.
The feeling of entering the Sepang straight (we had use of only three-fourth of the track) and playing Fernando Alonso being cheered by fans was next in the agenda. I entered the straight in fourth gear and that meant an expensive (as in time consuming) shift through fifth and sixth to get maximum revs off the engine. The moment is indicated by two red lights that blip to inform you that you have, for the first time in the lap, reached the limit of the racing engine. Waste gates open and spectacular backfires applaud your moment of glory before you hit the braking marker.
Now understand this, the most important part of a racing carare its brakes. At least, they are to people like you and me. While the aerodynamics, the engine, the slick tyres and every other bit strives to go a tenth faster, the brakes manage to slap them all on their respective faces as they retard the car. It is not unlike hitting a wall, and by the time your cornea retracts from handling 200 kph, you are at the corner and riding the curbs at a pedestrian 80 kph. And then you sink your right foot – in my case, my little toe – to the throttle and the single-seater darts to the next apex, and then onto the next straight.
During the day, we had two sessions and a total of five laps to get our act better. But trust me when I tell you that the learning curve from a road car to a single-seater can be pretty good for the simple reason that these machines are meant to go faster. So what if you are not? Apparently driving these machines comes easy, but taking it to a fine art where every nanosecond counts is where the big difference is. And that is why I will never be a Formula One driver.
By the last lap of the second session, I was tailing the M3 close up and I could see the super sedan slithering and sliding around corners with the Renault closing the gap at an alarming pace. I would like to believe that the pace car driver had to get the M3 off its electronic assistance and drive the wheels off it to stay ahead. Well, I said, I would like to believe that!
A new dream? How about trying to become the oldest man to do a sub-ten minute lap at the old Nurburgring in a production car? At least that is not time bound.